WASHINGTON -- Most voters don't really pay attention to campaigns and candidates until a week or two before Election Day - and most Americans, in like fashion, are only now starting to tune into the debt ceiling debate.
A Pew Research Center poll, conducted with The Washington Post last week, found Americans roughly split between those who view the raising of the debt ceiling with greater concern, and those more alarmed by a failure to increase it. As well, the number of Americans worried about the prospect of Uncle Sam defaulting on his bills grew by 7 percent over the last two months.
The question of whether to add to America's $14.2 trillion borrowing authority is growing more intense, with President Obama now leading negotiations with congressional Republicans that stalled under the supervision of Vice President Biden, as an Aug. 2 deadline nears. On that date, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said, the federal government will likely exceed its statutory borrowing limit.
If that happens, Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have warned of catastrophic consequences for the U.S. economy, including a loss of faith among foreign creditors and a downgrading of America's credit ratings. This would in turn translate into higher interest rates for banks and ordinary borrowers alike, Obama administration officials have said, producing adverse effects for virtually all Americans.
In exchange for their agreement to vote to raise the debt ceiling -- by about $2.4 trillion -- Republican lawmakers have demanded huge, structural cuts in America's deficit spending, at least equal to the additional borrowing power the president is seeking, and have also insisted the overall package not raise taxes on any Americans. The White House and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill have agreed to austere measures in spending, but maintain some steps to increase federal revenues must also be included in the deal.
"If they don't reach an agreement, we can't borrow and we can't make all our payments," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It would be exactly parallel to some husband and wife sitting around the kitchen table, and they're worried about their bills....They can't pay their bills unless they want to bounce a check and eventually get themselves in serious trouble. It's exactly parallel to the federal government. If they can't borrow the money, they can't pay their bills and a lot of people are going to suffer in very concrete ways."
A random, unscientific poll of tourists and commuters at Washington, D.C.'s Union Station on Tuesday found most of those queried knowledgeable about the debt ceiling debate, but with some possessing a more detailed grasp of its real-life consequences.
"I think that I should probably buy everything I need to buy right now, before August 2nd, or else my currency might be valueless," said Sonny Sinha, a management consultant returning home to Silver Spring, Maryland.
"Short-term, no," responded Becky Vaiz, a business office manager from Fresno, Calif., when asked if she has any idea of how she personally would be impacted by a failure to raise the debt ceiling. "But eventually it's going to catch us in some way," she said.
April Lenhard, a tourist from Rochester, N.Y., spoke with a world-weariness that belied her age of 20: "The way I think about is that we're in debt; we have been in debt; we know that we're just digging ourselves farther into debt; and we want to continue to do so. So we're not going to lower it; we're not going to just let it stay as it is. We want to look like we're doing something."
But when asked how she personally would be impacted if the debt ceiling is exceeded, Lenhard expressed doubt about the premise of the question. "I don't think it's going to affect the average person all that much," she said. "Like, I know that it's a huge deal, and it's something that people should be focusing on, but it's not something that I'm going to sit down at home every night and worry about as I go to sleep, because it's really not going to impact us."
Sherman Goodwin, an I.T. consultant visiting from Columbus, Ohio, said he had heard that the economy might "collapse" but hadn't dwelt upon that depressing scenario. "I haven't given much thought yet to how it would impact me, or anyone else," said the married father of two.
Jennifer Alden, a Manhattan receptionist in town to attend an event featuring the Dalai Lama, spoke of her hope that the debate would be carried on with "equanimity." "I haven't followed it in complete detail," she said, before adding: "It could affect prices of your credit card, it could affect loan agreements, it could affect things that really make or break people's lives."
"I just know the stuff is supposed to hit the fan," replied Kia Davis, a graduate student in social work at Howard University, when asked what she thinks will happen on August 2nd. "But I don't know."
Those who live and work in Washington, in the FOx News spot check, tended to be more familiar with the debate and its stakes.
"I still have student loans," said David Guard, an activist whose focus is on reforming the drug laws. "I could see an increase in those interest rates. ... I'm looking right now at potentially buying a home within a few years. I have a decent credit rating now, but I'm going to need an even higher, better credit rating to secure a loan. I'm looking at starting a business soon, here in the District. There again -- securing loans, paying payrolls. I mean, these are real issues."